“We Look Forward to Being at the Forefront of Change” – Triple H (Interview)

Triple H is one of the greatest superstars of all time by any metric. In the ring, he’s sold out shows worldwide and is second only to John Cena in terms of the WWE world championships he’s earned. In the back, he’s created one of the most passionately followed and beloved brands in sports entertainment history. This week, as myself and my colleagues, picked up the phone to present The Game with questions, he fills another role.

With the Greatest Royal Rumble taking place this Friday at the King Abdullah Stadium in Jeddah, as well as their upcoming UK tour and second UK Championship tournament, their recent push into India and plans to expand into other parts of the world, Triple H finds himself fulfilling the job of ambassador. Here, he talks to us about strengthening the global aspect of WWE’s brand and using it to influence positive change, his upcoming match with John Cena, what he thinks of Ronda Rousey and a whole lot more.

Hunter begins by letting us know what WWE is up to and focussed on for the next few days. “We’re here in Saudi Arabia getting ready for the Greatest Royal Rumble which will be an epic and monumental event, not only in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East but around the world as this can be seen on the WWE Network by everyone. Given the significance of being here at the forefront of this cultural expansion, I’m thrilled to be here. The buzz is incredible. Having been here all week the feeling is reminiscent of being at WrestleMania. We’ve come in and taken over this area; there are billboards everywhere and it’s all everyone is talking about. I believe the event is sold out and we’re ready to roll.”

When faced with the criticism of leading the charge of the Women’s Evolution while pursuing a market that will not currently allow them to perform (especially as this is the first special event removed from Ronda Rousey’s astonishing Debut at WrestleMania), the COO had some hard truths to share but also some positive outlooks. “You have to understand that every culture is different. Just because you don’t agree with a certain aspect of it doesn’t mean it’s not a relevant culture. You can’t dictate to a country or a religion the way they handle things. That being said, WWE is at the forefront of a Women’s evolution in the world and what you can’t do is affect change anywhere by staying away from it. Our being here in Saudi Arabia with the Greatest Royal Rumble while women are not competing in the event right now, we’ve had discussions about that. We believe and hope that in the next few years they will be.

“That’s a significant cultural shift here. The Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia is in the middle of a shift and their positions are changing. Women’s rights are changing. The way women are handled and treated within society is changing and we think that’s a great thing and we look forward to being in the forefront of that change. You cannot affect change by sitting on the sidelines doing nothing and watching from afar criticising, which is what I feel like 99% of the people in the world do. We’re doing something.”

Considering the reaction WWE has already had when it has brought its live show to previously untravelled territories, does WWE’s global reach ever astound you? “It really does. It’s funny for me; in the 90s, I first realised the reach of the WWE walking down a dirt road in India as kids were coming out of mud huts, chanting our names and it just blew my mind. It never ceases to amaze me. There’s no place in the world that you can go and not be recognised as a WWE superstar; unlike most sports teams and events – where it’s much more about the location dictating where the fans are – WWE is a very global property – it’s understood everywhere and the stars themselves become something more.

“They become larger than life – almost superheroes – and they can affect cultural change. They can go into markets and be seen as something more and have a message that can be listened to. As opposed to being part of a team that a few years from now will just get replaced, John Cena will always be John Cena. Whether he is in the ring or his time has passed and he’s doing other things, he will still be a WWE Legend and one of the most recognised people on the planet. That represents a huge opportunity for us. When you talk about the cultural shift in the world, a few months ago we had the first-ever match with women competing in front of an Abu Dhabi crowd. There were men and women and children with tears in their eyes chanting ‘This is Hope’.”

He let us know WWE’s plans for the ten-year partnership. “Putting on massive events like the Greatest Royal Rumble in Saudi Arabia is what WWE does. All over the world, we put on shows of this calibre. We do 560 live events a year. This one is slightly challenging, being in Saudi Arabia. The infrastructure’s a little bit different and not all of the things that we normally bring for our entertainment purposes within the shows are actually here in Saudi Arabia, so they have to be shipped in. That requires a little effort, especially with the timing around WrestleMania, but we’re very excited to be here. This is going to be a massive event in the sold-out King Abdullah Stadium here in Jeddah and we look forward to showcasing it to the world.

“As far as our relationship with Saudi Arabia goes, it’s part of a cultural exchange. WWE has a massive fan base in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, as we do around the world, so we want to put on epic, memorable shows for our very passionate fans here in the Middle East. But while we’re doing that, we also want to show the culture and the people of Saudi Arabia to the world, because in a lot of instances it’s not what people think. I think people just see what they see in movies and on the news about the Middle East or Saudi Arabia itself, and they have misinterpretations of what it is. This is to be able to put that out to the world, to show them it’s a very welcoming place.”

Hunter won’t just be doing the welcoming duties on the tour. He’ll also be wrestling against John Cena in a match that could find a place on any marquee in the world. We asked him his feeling going into Friday. “My feelings for the match are I’m thrilled. I’m thrilled to be here in Saudi Arabia. I’m thrilled to have an opportunity to step into the ring in front of fans that have been watching me on television since the late 90s. I’ve heard a lot of people talking about a certain calibre they’re looking forward to seeing here. Thank you, John Cena. Always a pleasure.

“It’s been a great rivalry that we’ve had in the past. We haven’t faced each other for eight years. I think that the time is right for us to step in the ring one more time and do it again. Show these young guys how it’s done.  This is one of those matches where you don’t necessarily need a ton of build. Maybe if you were performing in a different venue at a different time, maybe you would need it. Right now? Especially here in Saudi Arabia and saying that we’re facing each other, it’s like saying The Undertaker is here. It’s good enough. It’s significant to the people attending the show. This will be a spectacular event, I look forward to stepping into the ring with John Cena, and showing him why to this day, I’m still better than he is. There’s a couple of John’s moves I’d like to punch him the face for, there’s a couple of mine he’d like to hit me for. We’re all good.”

As there wasn’t any build up before the match, some of us were wondering if their match in Jeddah would lead to a longer program in the aftermath. “I think the thing that’s always resonated between me and Cena, if you put championships aside, is pride for what we do. There is no doubt in my mind that John Cena is one of the best to ever do this. There’s no doubt in my mind of where my place is in that significant history of WWE. I think this comes down to what it’s always come down to between me and John Cena. It’s pride. It’s what makes him great. It’s what made me thrive throughout my career.

“I look forward to getting in the ring with him. If it ends up being more in the long term, so be it. If it ends up being a one-off because after I beat him, John wants to call it a day, that’s part of it too. It cannot be argued. John Cena is one of the most decorated champions in WWE history. He’s had one of the longest runs on top in WWE history. Many people love John. Many people hate John. But the truth is they pack arenas all over the world to see him. That’s the truth. I don’t care what anybody else says. You can make fun of him. They can attack his style. The fact is, he’s one of the biggest stars of our business, one of the biggest box office attractions in the history of our business, bar none. So, am I looking forward to facing John Cena in the King Abdullah Stadium this Friday? You’re damn right I am.”

As a few of us on the call hail from Britain, there was a fair amount of interest in the upcoming UK tour and second UK Championship Tournament. “I think it speaks to the global nature of what WWE is and what we are now in today’s world. In the next few months, you will see two full main roster tours of Raw and SmackDown in the UK. You will see NXT at Download Festival as well as shows in Paris and Antwerp. We’re coming back to one of the most famous arenas in London, The Royal Albert Hall, for two days back-to-back with the UK Championship and an NXT/UK event on the second day. It’s massive. While we’re there for this UK event in the Royal Albert Hall, we’ll be making some announcements about the future of the championship brand, both in the UK and moving forward.

“That brand still remains very near and dear to me. It’s something I want to move on. It’s taking a little bit longer than I anticipated in terms of getting things done and getting them done in the way I want them to get done, but we anticipate it’s happening and it will be meaningful to everybody there and I look forward to showcasing UK talent to the world.”

Will these expansions translate into more internationally themed titles? “That is a goal that will take place over time, whether that is in the Middle East or in India or Latin America. It all comes down to timing. I wish we could all just push a button and make these happen but they all take time and they take partnerships and they take significant business dealings. Would I love for NXT to be the overseer of a global international brand in all the markets that we just mentioned? Absolutely, it’s just going to take time.

One of the most exciting prospects of this tour is the fact that the citizens of Saudi Arabia are being given WWE try-outs, potentially ending in a spot in the Greatest Royal Rumble itself. We asked Triple H what these try-outs mean for WWE. “Given the length of the partnership – 10 years – the desire is to find Saudi Arabian and Middle Eastern talent that fit into the WWE mould. We had try-outs, and by the time we got a couple of days in it had whittled down to 21. After three or four days we had a top eight. That top eight will continue to train this week through to the Royal Rumble event and we’ll see where it goes from there. But this is step one of the process. We opened up a pathway and it’s going to take a while to fill that path with talents from around the region that want to be WWE Superstars.

“Right now, it’s still an unbelievable opportunity for people. They’re not sure that it’s real, but it is real. That’s what we’re doing here. We’re finding talents. The long-term goal is putting a performance centre on the ground here and training athletes and if we come up with enough quality talent then maybe doing something on the ground here. It’s open and we’re looking at working really hard in the region, no different to any other region. To me this is a goal in the UK, this is a goal in South America, this is a goal here in the Middle East, India; it’s basically global.”

Recently, WWE’s biggest show of the year WrestleMania happened in New Orleans. Triple H was part of a mixed-gender tag match that pitted him and his wife against WWE Hall of Famer, Kurt Angle and MMA Legend, ‘Rowdy’ Ronda Rousey. Rousey, who was debuting at the event, took everyone by surprise and the world by storm. We asked Hunter what he thought of her performance?Ronda proved a lot of things to a lot of people. I’ve been saying it since she first showed interest in us that she was on a different level. She wasn’t looking to come in and be a celebrity guest. She was looking to come in and be a WWE Superstar. She wants to be great at this. She wants this to be the biggest chapter of her career. She truly believes – and I believe – that everything that she did prior to this, was the lead up to her coming to where she belongs. The WWE. I cannot think of a more meaningful, impactful and more successful debut of anybody in history. She certainly woke a lot of people up and made them realise that Ronda Rousey wants to be a WWE Superstar for real.

“I think that the sky’s the limit for her. She is dedicated to this. She is 24/7 in this. She is a machine when it comes to training and focus. I have no doubt in my mind that because she wants to do it so badly, she will be great at this. I wasn’t surprised by her. I think Ronda is one of the premier athletes on the planet. She’s an Olympic champion. She’s a judo champion. In MMA they created entire divisions just for her. The term world-class athlete gets thrown around a lot. The definition of world-class athlete is Ronda Rousey. People say ‘top one percent’. She is way beyond one percent of where she sits and when you’re that level of dedicated athlete, you can do anything and she is 100% dedicated to this. Her mind-set is to be one of the best, if not the best ever at this and I don’t doubt she’ll do it for a second. That being said, I’d also like to take a step back and mention how great I thought Kurt Angle – first time in a WWE WrestleMania ring in over a decade – was; Stephanie, not just because she’s my wife but she’s had one match since 2003, stepping into the ring at WrestleMania for the first time. I got the opportunity while I was in the ring to be a fan a little bit and I was in awe of all three of them.”

Finally, with so many roles he has undertaken for the company, we asked him if he had to choose between his wrestling career or his time as a WWE creative, which one would he want as his legacy? “To negate either one for me would be difficult. I didn’t get into the business thinking I wanted to be a promoter or I want to be a creative force behind the scenes. I got into the business because I loved it and was a massive fan. The in-ring thrill is not easy to describe to people what that’s like, being able to step into the ring at WrestleMania or at The Greatest Royal Rumble with 50,000 to 75,000 to 100,000 people going crazy.

“It’s a unique experience and I’m very proud of my career and of all the things that I accomplished. I’m humbled and thankful for the amount of people that I got to work with. I came up in a great era with amazing talent like The Rock and Austin and Taker and that list goes on and on and I’m thankful for that. If I could pick something on the other side, I get as much out of watching these young guys achieve their own success. I get a lot out of creating something new, like NXT, a show our hardcore fans love, or something in the UK.

“We had an opportunity to give them something that they never thought that they’d get the chance to do at this level. We’ve given them the opportunity to come into new markets like Saudi Arabia or India or Latin America and really invigorate a market and do something more with it. Recruit talent from there, give them a pathway to get to WWE. To make WWE a truly global brand and renew how our superstars train and where they come from. I’m having the time of my life. Creating opportunities for these kids with amazing people like Matt Bloom, Sara Amatto and Shawn Michaels. It’s thrilling and exciting and I’m loving doing it.”

The Greatest Royal Rumble is Friday the 27th of April at 5 pm UK time.

All images courtesy of WWE